Healing powers of gallnut help student earn award

May 29, 1994|By Lan Nguyen | Lan Nguyen,Sun Staff Writer

Prompted by a toothache, Amita Shukla has devoted long hours over the past three years to research into why an east Indian nut is effective against gum disease.

For her efforts, she recently won first place in the microbiology category at the International Science Fair in Alabama, where she competed among 80 other students in her division.

The international fair's was the latest among other honors she has won. To date, the 18-year-old Ellicott City resident has earned more than $4,000 in scholarship money.

Science, she says, "is so vast and so interesting. Science is something I have been curious about for a long time. Science could provide the answer to everything and especially now, it influences everything."

A simple toothache spawned her three-year research project on why her grandmother's home remedy using the east Indian gallnut worked so well to prevent gum disease, a condition that afflicts 75 percent of adults.

"She won't give up," says Ed Rohde, her science teacher. "She's motivated and persistent. She listens well and will follow through. She not only is a good scientist, but she is a good communicator of science."

A childhood fascination with how things worked and an inquisitive mind helped drive her quest.

"Ever since I was little, I always liked playing with things, mixing soap or whatever," Amita said. "For as long as I can remember, I was interested in scientific experiments."

While Amita says her parents didn't push her into the sciences, they had a big influence. Her father, Ashok Shukla, holds a Ph.D in biochemistry, and her mother, Mukta Shukla, has a master's degree in biochemistry. They own Sialomed Inc., a biotechnology firm in Columbia.

"Whenever I had a question about science, they were always there to answer me," Amita said. "Sometimes I had science tales as bedtime stories."

Her parents chuckle and say their daughter has been interested in science for as long as they can remember. Her mother recalls that when she studied for her biochemistry finals, Amita would sit next to her and draw structural formulas.

"What are you doing?" her mother would ask.

"I'm doing what you're doing," Amita would say.

Amita was born in Germany where her parents lived when they were completing their postgraduate studies in biochemistry.

The family moved to Finland for a year and then to India, where Amita lived until she entered the eighth grade. She came to Ellicott City in 1990 and completed that grade at Dunloggin Middle School. She's fluent in German and Hindi.

For many years, Amita felt that she didn't fit in. She couldn't assimilate into German culture, and she was a oddity even in India. And, despite her many achievements, she couldn't quite find a niche at Centennial High.

"Sometimes I was upset at having to travel to different places," she says. "Now that I reached this point, having traveled around so much is one of my greatest gifts."

Amita also excels in areas outside science.

She placed second in last year's Howard Community College High School Speech Tournament and won a national essay contest sponsored by the National Capitol Historical Society. She has also written a research paper on the history of the Bethesda-based National Institutes of Health.

At Centennial High, Amita's activities are many: She heads the speech and debate team and writes and edits for the school newspaper and literary magazine. She also is a Maryland Distinguished Scholar finalist, a National Merit semifinalist and a National Honor Society member.

While schoolmates say she is shy and quiet, Adriane Faust, a friend, has seen another side to Amita. "She's kind of wild, but she hides it. Outside of school, she's a different person."

Adriane said that during a trip to Busch Gardens, the two decided to do an impromptu science experiment -- to determine what direction spit would fly at the top of a roller coaster loop.

"It didn't work and I wouldn't recommend it," Adriane says. "The guy in the back got mad, and we got splattered."

Amita hopes to get a patent for her research, but says the process is long and expensive. This fall she intends to continue ++ her research at Harvard University, where she wants to pursue a liberal arts education with an eye to enter the medical field.

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